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Iraqi `Initiative' Challenges Israel's Low Profile in Crisis

WHILE Israel has deliberately kept a low profile during the mounting crisis in the Gulf, it risks being drawn into the confrontation. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's proposal for resolving the Kuwait conflict in tandem with the withdrawal of other occupying forces in the Middle East may renew the focus of attention on Israel's control of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

In a statement issued on Sunday, Saddam Hussein said a settlement of the dispute in Kuwait should be reached along with an unconditional Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories, the Golan Heights and Lebanon; a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon; mutual withdrawals along the Iraq-Iran border; and a United States withdrawal from the Gulf.

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Though Saddam Hussein's proposal has been dismissed out of hand by both the US and Israel, analysts here caution it might revive international and popular Arab interest in the Palestinian issue and the fate of the Israeli-occupied territories.

``Saddam Hussein's proposal shows that any attempt to isolate the Arab-Israeli dispute from developments between Iraq and Kuwait and between the Arab world and the US is artifical,'' wrote Ze'ev Schiff, Israel's leading military analyst, in the Ha'aretz newspaper. ``If a similar proposal comes tomorrow from a Western source, Israel will not be able to evade it in similar fashion.''

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir has argued that Iraq's invasion has ``dwarfed'' the Palestinian issue and showed the real source of instability in the region not to be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but belligerent Arab regimes. Saddam Hussein's initiative could draw that conflict into the current confrontation.

Some analysts say Saddam Hussein's proposals appeared to be designed primarily for Arab consumption, and were intended to divert popular attention from Iraq's occupation of Kuwait to the cause of ``liberating Palestine.'' Such a diversion could garner the Iraqi leader further public support in Arab countries and enhance his image as the defender of Arab interests.

Saddam Hussein's attempt to link the Gulf crisis to the Arab-Israeli dispute was the latest in a series of Iraqi statements implicating Israel in the confrontation in the Gulf.

Last Wednesday, an Iraqi military spokesman said Israeli war-planes had been painted with US markings and its pilots issued false US identification papers. On Saturday, Iraq charged that Israeli pilots and soldiers were stationed with US troops in Saudi Arabia. Statements from Baghdad repeatedly refer to the ``imperialist and Zionist'' forces threatening Iraq.

The Iraqi accusations are seen in Jerusalem as a part of an effort to rally Arab support against a perceived Israeli threat, and an attempt to drive a wedge between the US and its Arab allies, who do not want to be seen as colluding with Israel.

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Officials in Jerusalem have consistently maintained that Israel has no direct involvement in the Gulf dispute, and have carefully avoided public discussion of Israeli assistance to the US. Though Israel is said to be exchanging intelligence information with Washington, it has reportedly been asked by the US to maintain a low profile regarding its involvement so as not to hamper the enlistment of Arab support in the confrontation.

At the same time, Israeli defense officials are preparing for the eventuality that Saddam Hussein would turn on Israel in a desperate attempt to break the tightening international siege around his country, or in retaliation for a US military effort.

His accusations of Israeli military intervention in the Gulf were interpreted by some analysts here as an attempt to lay the groundwork for a possible attack on Israel. Israeli defense officials say they are taking the necessary precautions to thwart a possible Iraqi strike.

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